Vol. XI — No. 40 October 4, 1970
And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. Then said the Lord, Doest thou well to be angry? So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city. And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live. And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Beloved in the Lord:
These are not days in which mercy is very much mentioned; the hatred of warring times calls rather for revenge. This is so forcefully evident in the Middle East situation today. But whenever anyone in public life speaks of mercy and forgiveness, it is a reflection of “the goodness of God—that leads—to repentance.” Rom. 2:4. It was when we were enemies of God that Christ died for us. It is when you are kind to an angry dog that you will win his friendship, even his loyalty.
But no sinner will repent who does not know, according to the law and the threatenings of God, that he is living a life the end of which is certain death and destruction, everlasting punishment. And when men do see their sins, when men turn from their sinful ways and seek the Lord, then God answers a loud YES to the question,
Nineveh and the nations today answer the question with a loud NO! Jonah had been sent to that famous city to proclaim that because of its great wickedness it should be destroyed after forty days. Jonah had fled from God. He tried to escape from a difficult duty. God had spared his life by a miracle. God had been good to him, and now, after his deliverance from death he was sent a second time to Nineveh, God commanding: “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.”
But the conditions in Nineveh did not call for God to spare; rather, they called for the emptying upon it of the fiercest wrath of God. It was a wicked city, a very large city over 500 airline miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, full of iniquity, called by Nahum “a bloody city,” “full of lies and robbery,” Nah. 3:1. It was the capitol city of the Assyrian Empire. And some of its emperors, as, for example Ashurnasirpal, we are told, delighted in cutting off the hands and feet, noses and ears of his enemies, and in making mounds of human skulls. Such conditions called for the wrath of God to crush and to destroy.
The Assyrian kings exacted tribute of the children of Israel, they took captives among conquered peoples, they destroyed Samaria and they threatened Jerusalem and blasphemed with foul words. Now their capitol city, the city founded by Nimrod, a city of more than half a million people, was ripe for destruction. “As carrion emits a nauseous stench, so Nineveh’s wickedness is come up before the Lord, the city’s measure of wickedness is full; the day of divine retribution is at hand.” The whole history of this city would argue: Do not spare!
What of our nation and people? If the story of the mission of Jonah had no lesson for our day, it would be foolish to use it for a text. Did our people repent when God spoke to us with the scourge of war, earlier in this century? Did the wickedness of our nation decrease when God thus spoke to us? Or did our people not rather go into a period of loosened morals, increase in crime, and a naturalistic philosophy of life and of education which said that what you enjoy is what you should have and what you should live for? Did not even the foremost thinkers and leaders in the state and nation tell us, not to discipline ourselves and learn the lessons of thrift and self-denial, but to expect an abundant life filled with material things? And if we could not get them the hard way of working for them, then the state, the government, would give them to us! It is not over-drawing the picture to magnify our national sins of idolatry and godlessness, disobedience to parents and disrespect for law, corruption of leaders and the curse of mechanistic education. Yes, it has gotten to be so that we hardly care to read the biography of the current great names, because almost invariably it turns out that they are living in open sin. And significantly, it is not the leaders of the church that are looked upon as the Jeremiahs of the day; it is the leaders in the world—the church is about the only institution that is optimistic, having the upward look of hope and victory. But has the lashing of the scourge of war taught our nation to be sober? Are men more godly today? At times it seems so; at times it seems definitely not so. To be sure, the homes that are touched by the heavy hand of casualties on the land, on the sea, and in the air must be impatient with the frivolity of those who are prospering by this business of destruction and death. But do you not feel as you circulate among the people of the world that they are impatient with the restrictions we now live under, waiting eagerly for the time when they will be free again to revel in unrestrained indulgences?—We are comparing the nation with the nation of Assyria and the great city of Nineveh. Now you, too, take a look at it and answer the question whether the nation is so behaving that God should spare. Its conduct cries NO to the question of God, Should not I spare? There may be something cynical about the question of the man who asked, “Why should God bless America?” But think it over.
Jonah said No, do not spare! Jonah was afraid that God would be gracious and spare the wicked city of Nineveh, that great city of the Gentiles; and to a Jew it was detestible to think that the Gentiles should be anything but destroyed. And therefore Jonah fled. He bought passage on a ship heading for Tarshish, a city in Spain, far to the west. But he was spared from death in the deep by a miracle of God and sent back a second time to preach, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Picture the stern prophet of God, unwillingly, but no doubt boldly, going from place to place in the city, day after day, explaining to the people that their wickedness was now so great that in forty days God would step in and blast it from the face of the earth. Did he preach in the markets? Did the streets fill with people to listen to this strange man? Were there scoffers mocking him? We are not told the details. But the people listened and began to tremble, for no doubt they knew in their conscience that the prophet’s words were true. Finally the news reached the king; and the king, knowing his great responsibility in wickedness and iniquity, published it abroad by means of his heralds that every man should put on sackcloth and turn from his evil ways and from his violence. Even the animals should not eat and drink, just as the people should fast, and thus all creatures should cry unto God.
But when the people turned from their sins, and God spared the city, Jonah was disappointed. He had made himself a booth outside the city to the east. He was angry and complained to God: “Was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish, for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.” Then he sat in his booth, lived there, till he should see what would become of the city, for he still hoped that he would be right, and that the city would be destroyed.
And are we not much like Jonah? Can we understand the mercy of God? Do we not judge harshly? Is not the heart “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” even as God’s Word describes it to us in Jeremiah? (17:9). When we look out upon the world, are we not surprised that God allows it to stand, since God must look upon a world full of iniquity, whereas we see only a little of it in our particular corner?
This is because we forget that God has been merciful to us, even as Jonah forgot that God had been merciful to him and spared him from certain death when he was swallowed by the monster of the sea. Someone has said that this part of the story of Jonah ought properly to be the most unbelievable. He has put it in the form of this parable: A number of angels were gathered in heaven listening to the reading of the Book of the Prophet Jonah. They listened with due devotion, but without the least wonderment. They were not astonished at the remarkable storm, nor that the lot fell upon Jonah so he was cast overboard. They were not surprised at the fact that God saved Jonah by means of the great fish. They were not even amazed at the conversion of Nineveh, much less at the grace and mercy God showered upon the city. And why? Because they were used to seeing such miracles of God’s grace and mercy. It was no new thing to them. Every day they saw such things. But when the reader came to the fourth chapter, all the angels grew uneasy. They asked for a rereading of this or that verse, hoping that they had heard wrong. But when they were convinced that they had heard aright, they exclaimed: “The very idea! How is it possible that a man unto whom God had showed such great mercy, whom with a mighty hand He had delivered from destruction, and in spite of former disobedience still used for carrying out so glorious a task, how is it possible that such a man can quarrel and be angry with his God? Unless the text clearly stated so, we would refuse to believe it.”
Angels are surprised at such behavior of Jonah, but you and I are not surprised. You and I have experienced the same behavior. We have turned to God for help; He has given us help. We have implored His mercy with tears of sorrow for our sin, and God has shown mercy. We have promised God faithfully to follow Him if only He would save us from great danger, harm, or death. But, as soon as we have slipped out of the collar, we have grown stubborn and dissatisfied with the Lord’s guidance, and, just like Jonah, we have wished that we could rather die! We have been impatient with God that He should show mercy to people, who, we thought, were even more wicked than we. And thus we have in our perversity shouted NO to God’s question, Should not I spare?
But the answer of God is YES, I SHOULD SPARE!
The Book of Jonah is the announcement of impending judgment, but it is also a story of God’s boundless mercy. An unworthy nation, outside the bounds of God’s chosen people, who have had nothing to do with God’s people except in the contact of hostilities receive the prophet from Israel. Even Jonah himself had rendered himself doubly unworthy by disobedience.
But notice it well, that it was a penitent people that God spared. The text says that “the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth…” (3:5-10).
We are not told that God first made them go through a period of testing and refining before He would consider them converted. Here is no talk that they must first learn to pray well, to agonize much, and to prove to one another that they were changed at heart. We do not know how many repented and believed, but Jesus (who is greater than Jonah) testifies to their faith when He speaks to the unbelieving generation of His day: “The men of Nineveh shall rise up in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.” Luke 11:32.
When God says, YES, I SHOULD SPARE, He does not say it grudgingly. As we read Jonah, we are impressed with the readiness with which God spared the wicked city when it repented. And God used a striking way to make clear to Jonah, pouting in his booth, that he ought to spare. He caused a gourd, a palmcrist, to grow up and shade Jonah from the hot sun. Jonah delighted in it. Then God caused it to die from the bite of a worm. Jonah felt pity toward the withered gourd; he wished that it might not die. Jonah wished that a dear plant might live. You and I wish that even unimportant creatures may live. It grieves us to see beautiful things die. “Why can’t the red rose live always?” We pity a pet that is crushed beneath the wheels of a passing auto. “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left” —120,000 babies and infants, who couldn’t be accused of any particular wrongdoing like their parents? —whose hands were not stained with blood and filled with violence?
Jonah could not answer. You and I cannot answer. Yes, the justice of God still stands; Nineveh would have been mercilessly destroyed had not its people turned from sin, even as it was destroyed over a century later. The heavens and the earth are reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. And the Lord is not slack in carrying out that verdict as men count slackness. But He is “longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” II Peter 3:9. God wants to spare. His love prompts Him to do all that He might spare. God will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16. Come, He says, for all things are now ready. “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near; let the wicked for sake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Is. 55:6f. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.